7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.

Are job interviews useless?

One of the books I took along with me on a recent vacation was Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. At one point the authors discuss a body of research showing that interviews are generally poor predictors of a candidate’s future performance on a job.

The problem lies mainly in the types of questions asked in a typical job interview and the interviewer’s over-inflated confidence in their ability to judge people’s merit. Many interview questions are soft and fuzzy (“What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? How would you describe yourself?”). They are rarely going to elicit candid responses. Neither are the kinds of questions that ask candidates to imagine themselves five years in the future or lay out their whole career path. Interviewees will generally prepare stock replies, gloss over their actual faults, and put on a performance.

Interviewers know this, but they still think that they can identify the right candidate based on the kind of performance and on the rapport established during the interview. In actuality, this kind of unstructured interview isn’t a reliable indicator of how well a candidate will do on a job. (Also, managers are often looking for people who are similar to them and to other employees, when in fact it might be more beneficial to have someone who complements others in personality and ability; for instance, if you’ve got a team of energetic and dynamic risk-takers, you might want someone who’s more cautious and low-key to provide balance.)

One suggestion for improvement that’s made in the book is to change the format of the interview. Instead of having it unfold in an unstructured and conversational style, interviewers could include some formal tests measuring abilities relevant to the job. They could also add more questions that are concrete and shed light on an interviewee’s thought processes. For example, an interviewer could ask questions involving “what-if” scenarios (“What if you’re organizing a fund-raiser and the caterer backs out two days before?” “What if your star employee suddenly starts to show up to work late everyday?”).

Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

Psychology’s checkered past

The experiments mentioned in 10 Psychological Experiments that Went Horribly Wrong are more complex (and darker) than how they’re portrayed in the article, which also doesn’t give a full account of the rationale behind some of them and what conclusions we can draw from them.

But the article is still worth a look, to get a sense of the kinds of unethical cruel decisions made by experimenters and doctors, the poor experimental designs of their studies, and the way that human nature can often turn ugly really fast.

In their bid to capture, quantify or control some of our most fundamental qualities – love, cruelty, craving for approval, sexual identity, fear, power and submission – these experimenters usually didn’t account for how messy people can be (and how easy it is to let power over others go to your head).

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

What’s this ‘self’ we’re trying to help?

Read this thought-provoking piece on self-help in New York Magazine, which asks how self-help can work if we don’t yet fully understand what a ‘self’ is: what the mind is exactly, the nature of personality and character, who we are, what we are, how we operate in the world.

There’s much about the human brain (and by extension, mind) that we don’t know. We can’t fully explain why some people who struggle with an addiction to drugs for example fight it off successfully and remain sober for the rest of their lives, while other people – in spite of loving support and rehab and other life changes – relapse repeatedly. We can’t explain why, when faced with a 1,000-calorie dessert or a pack of cigarettes or a toxic but compelling person, we’re able to turn away sometimes, while other times we give in with seeming helplessness. What is this impulse towards self-destruction that persists even when we know that something is bad for us? What is it that drives our behavior at a “tipping point” when we can easily tilt towards one decision or another, harmful vs. beneficial?

Self-help guru cartoon

One thing I think is true is that the brain craves familiarity. It gets comfortable with certain modes of thought and habits, and it’s resistant to change. There can even be a kind of comfort in destructive behavior, thoughts and emotions, as long as they’re what we know; they’re our reality, and in some ways they feel right even when they’re horrible.

Much of the brain’s activity takes place beyond our awareness. For years and years our thoughts flow along familiar patterns; concepts and categories are fixed in place and cemented from the earliest moments of our life. When we fall back on what we already know and what we usually do, the brain doesn’t have to exert much effort.

So what pushes us to change? Knowing that we should change is not enough. We can spend hours reading books or combing through the Internet, where we will find a lot of information and ideas to contemplate. Some of that knowledge may be necessary for us to improve our lives. But it isn’t sufficient; furthermore, reading endlessly can serve as a procrastination tactic (keep reading the next website, and the one after that, and avoid actually doing anything). So what starts diverting our thoughts from their habitual channels? Even if you tell me that it’s necessary to impose new habits over the old ones – and that eventually those new, hopefully healthier habits will start to seem natural – where does that initial act of will come from that allows you to start checking your automatic thoughts and responses? Why does this will persist in some, in the face of repeated failure even, and why does it die away in others?

(Image links back to its source: Entrepremother blog.)

You mean there’s hope for me?

“No worries: Neuroticism may have a healthy upside” – says this article.

But this seems to be the case only if you’re both neurotic and conscientious. Because maybe by being conscientious you’re giving yourself a sense of control and security as you confront life’s many uncertainties?

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

(Image credit: Psychology today – and if you click on the image you’ll find an article with a look at neuroticism and conscientiousness in another context. Funnily, this article introduces us to “neurotic people” and “conscientious folks” – what about people who are both?)

Your socially awkward Edgar suit

If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit right over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a vicious alien – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Seriously, indifference towards what other people may think of you combined with sympathy for their alien humanness, so different from yours in some ways and so similar in others, is the way to go. Unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided lest they eat you up like a plate of pierogi, don’t worry so much about them.

Easier said than done, I know. That’s where you have to start living the words. Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.

(The Edgar suit image links back to its source, Men in Black Wikia.)

Is there anything you’d like to forget?

Using a “think/no-think” task and word pair associations (explanations are at the link), these scientists trained a group of study participants to block out part of an autobiographical memory each participant had chosen to forget.

The article doesn’t go into what kinds of memories the participants picked – they just had to be autobiographical. An example is given of an unpleasant childhood memory where you came to school in unfashionable clothes and an older kid made fun of you.

(Did any of the study participants pick memories that were more severe than that? Memories of events that could trigger PTSD?)

What exactly did ‘forgetting’ mean for the participants?
It seems they didn’t totally block out the memory and forget it ever happened. Instead they forgot some of the details. The memory also lost some of it’s “personal meaning” for them – for instance, even if a participant still remembers getting picked on for her clothes, and remembers the identity of the mean kid who picked on her, she may no longer associate the memory with feelings of personal inadequacy or self-consciousness.

A few questions to consider:

1) How long does this forgetting effect last?
(Turns out the scientists did a follow-up, and the write-up of the findings are pending.)

2) What does this kind of forgetting tell us about memory?
Our memories can have truth. But they’re also susceptible to embellishments and fabrications and personal biases. When study participants blocked out certain details, were these details more likely to be embellishments? (I don’t know if there’s a good way to find out.) If the memory lost some personal meaning for them, is it because a lot of the personal meaning came after the fact, imposed on the memory of the event by other cognitive processes? (Some people for instance are much more prone to linger over and give the worst possible interpretation to a bad memory and how it reflects on them as a person; each time they revisit a memory they might inflate the significance of the event and its negative impact.)

3) Do we want to forget?
In this study what’s induced in the participants isn’t genuine forgetting anyway; it sounds more like a memory getting dampened. I can think of situations where this kind of dampening and loss of some personal meaning might be desirable to people. But is it always desirable? When we tinker with our memories (which are already pretty vulnerable to our own non-conscious tinkering), we’re redefining ourselves. What if losing the personal meaning of certain negative memories makes us more likely to repeat a mistake, and to not learn or grow as much? The consequences aren’t always clear.

Defending even our worst ideas

I’m reading Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, where they try to account for why people justify errors and evil acts, deflect blame, and dismiss any evidence suggesting that they’re wrong.

The general idea is that we’re constantly trying to resolve cognitive dissonance: the presence of two conflicting ideas or concepts in our minds. The urgency with which we need to resolve cognitive dissonance increases to the extent that one of our core beliefs about ourselves is threatened.

For example, most people have the following belief about themselves: “I’m sane, decent, and competent.” (For some it could be, “I’m a peerless brilliant hero who shines an unquenchable light upon the mere mortals of this world.”)

But let’s say someone who has a good self-concept does something bad, believes in something idiotic, or identifies with something (or someone) evil or foolish. Suddenly the mind begins to question itself: “I’m a good person… but I just cheated on this test” or “I’m a smart person… but I just got suckered into spending $100 on a fad diet pill that made me gain weight” or “I worked for years and years promoting my pet scientific hypothesis… but now there’s a bunch of evidence debunking it” or “I strongly identify with and even love this awesome star football player… but now people are saying he beats his wife?”

So what does the brain do?

Many times, even without us being consciously aware of it, it minimizes the threat. We come up with justifications for cheating or lying, we double-down and defend an outworn idea, we rationalize why wasting our money or being duped was actually the smart thing, and we defend abusers, rapists and murderers even after their guilt has been proven. (People also find justification for abuse, rape, or murder that they themselves have perpetrated or turned a blind eye to as it was happening… this is the power of self-justification and our need to protect our psyche.) Our faulty memory can also swoop in and save the day, helping us gloss over details that detract from the rosy picture we have about ourselves while emphasizing the details (or inventing details) that support us.

So far the examples I’ve given are for people who have a basically good self-concept. What about people who think poorly of themselves?

Apparently the same thing happens, only in that case they’re protecting a negative self-image. If you think poorly of your intelligence, you might write off a good test score as a fluke. If you think you’re unattractive, then you dismiss someone’s flirtations by misinterpreting them or by thinking to yourself, “They like me now, but wait until they see the real me.” It’s amazing how hard the brain will work to protect core beliefs, even when they’re toxic.

The more we’re invested in something, for better or worse, the more we want to defend it and preserving our identities and what we believe is most important to our sense of self. I’ll be interested in what insights the book shares on catching yourself at these self-justifications and changing core beliefs.